I recently saw a video of a newborn baby giraffe who repeatedly tried to stand up, but fell down again and again. It looked painful, but she was determined. Each time she stood, her legs immediately collapsed and she hit the ground hard in search of just the right balance on her unsteady legs. She persisted until she was able to stand for a few seconds before falling. After several more attempts and falls, she finally took her first wobbly steps.
This baby giraffe kept coming to mind during cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions with clients, after hearing comments such as, “I know I’m being ridiculous for still feeling this way,” or, “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”
Our natural state is for our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to be aligned. Often, we’re clear about this – we think about what we want to do, why we want to do it, and we follow through. At other times, we seem to have no idea why we continue to feel or do things, or we may be painfully aware of the internal conflict. Unfortunately, this failure to follow through is often accompanied by harsh self-criticism. With CBT, we are very tuned in to our language, including our internal dialogue. We easily brainwash ourselves with our own words.
This is where the baby giraffe comes in. If she could speak, it might sound like, “I’ve never stood up or walked before but I know I really want to do this! This is so difficult – I keep falling but that’s ok because this is a totally new thing for me! I have to keep trying! I feel like I’m almost there!”
Her attempts are rewarded as she masters her skill, and her confidence, excitement, and motivation grow.
When we work towards a reward, whether it’s a degree, a clean home, a paycheck, or feeling helpful, our motivation comes from seeing progress or having a strong image or idea about our goal. Self-talk that helps with this is encouraging and motivating. It may sound like, “I can do this,” “this is going to be great,” or “I’m almost there.”
Our problems with changing a thought, feeling, or behavior, is where the well-worn path comes in.
Everything that we think, know, do, and feel, comes from our history, or more specifically, the history of the fluid interaction between everything we have ever been exposed to and continue to be exposed to, and our unique genetic predispositions. Whatever we repeat becomes habit. Whatever we repeat a lot, starts to feel like a fact, as if this is just the way we are, and it’s not really possible to change. This works the same for behaviors, feelings, and thought patterns.
The problem with this, is that our brain doesn’t filter out false or unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors. Whether it’s a pattern of repeatedly driving a specific route or self-medicating with food or alcohol, saying, “I can do this,” or, “this is impossible,” or reacting with anger, if it’s repeated enough, it will become automatic and feel unchangeable.
When our new, healthier thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are developed, focusing on them is like carefully creating and walking a new path. If we’re not thinking about our thoughts, taking a helicopter view of our own thinking, we will just end up on the old path without even realizing it.
The old path is well-worn. The more it has been traveled, the more ingrained it has become, the more effort it takes to avoid it. It is insidious. The well-worn path often includes self-defeating self-talk such as, “I can’t do this,” “this is just how I am,” or “this is impossible.”
Back to the baby giraffe. She had this habit of just lying around, taking it easy before birth. That was her well-worn path which was clearly not going to be a healthy thing to continue to do. Standing and walking was entirely new and challenging, as evidenced by her repeatedly falling. This is how it’s supposed to work.
For CBT to work, we have to be prepared for this. Identifying false, unhealthy beliefs and developing rational, healthier ones is just the beginning.
Change feels weird. When we learned how to walk, talk, drive, or just about anything, we were motivated to overcome that feeling by the anticipated reward. With CBT, the work is an inside job. We are purposefully thinking differently, in a seemingly unnatural way. The clinical term for this weird feeling is cognitive-emotive dissonance, and for CBT to work, we must be aware of it and the importance of tolerating and overcoming it.
While we are establishing new paths, the well-worn paths are still there. They can have a subtle or strong pull that we may or may not be aware of. We can end up on the old path, be there for minutes, hours, or days before we are conscious of it. This can happen at any time – even years after establishing a strong, new path with conscious repetition.
Back to the baby giraffe again. Once she is comfortable walking, she may still fall in the future. She may trip, lose her balance, or get knocked over. She may have difficulty getting up at some point. If she is truly able to get up, she will, because she will not be beating herself up for falling.
The point is, it’s not our fault or a flaw to end up on the old-path, or even for criticizing ourselves if we do. This happens because of repetition. Falling is to be expected when standing is new. Falling can happen at any time, and it does not define us or our future. We can notice we have fallen, and we can decide to try to get up.
To help ourselves be aware of what path we’re on, we can practice check-ins by regularly observing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we find ourselves on an old path, we can help ourselves head back to our new healthier path by responding with validation, self-compassion and without judgment. This may sound like, “Oh, here I am again. I’ve been here before and I know it’s counterproductive and unhealthy. It’s been difficult, however I would like to try to keep refocusing towards that healthier path.” When that healthier path is traveled repeatedly, it feels natural and happens automatically.
No, it’s not as easy or simple as it sounds, but like the baby giraffe, we can keep trying, no matter how many times we have fallen. We may have to try many new paths before one starts to feel comfortable. If we stop trying, it’s probably an old well-worn pathway that’s saying, “I can’t…” Many new pathways start with, “I can…” or, “I’d like to try.” If it is our habit, we can expect an “I can’t” to reappear. It’s all good. It’s all part of the process. No judgment, no worries, just notice and gently refocus, repeatedly.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com